Monday, February 18, 2008

What the Hell: I Am Mad, and I Can Type. If I Don't Have a Voice Here, Then Where Do I?

Thinking about sexual harassment pisses me off like nothing else. Why? Because most people, especially men, don't get it, and most think it's the way of the world.

I've been thinking about sexual harassment law a lot lately. I am stuck on an article because I can't figure out how to redraft the Ellerth/Faragher defense in a workable way. So I've immersed myself in the law review literature, which is, can we just say, depressing. I'm taking a class on Empirical Analyses of Gender Discrimination. I'm almost done reading Laura Beth Nielsen's excellent book, License to Harass, and in the past few weeks we've read Schultz's The Sanitized Workplace, Saguy's What Is Sexual Harassment, and three qualitative studies of sexual harassment in the workplace: Quinn's The Paradox of Complaining: Law, Humor, and Harassment, Morgan's Risking Relationships: Understanding the Litigation Choices of Sexually Harassed Women and Marshall's Idle RIghts: Employees' Rights Consciousness.

It is all so depressing: this is so common, and (contrary to popular conception) so little litigated or redressed, and this is just "natural"? It is depressing because there's very little I can do as a scholar--I can't even come up with a workable solution to redraft agency rules or the statutory interpretations, much less beleive that such prescriptions will ever be implemented. It is depressing because it happens to every woman I know, and I hear their stories and feel deeply on their behalf. They speak of feeling violated and silenced whenever such harassment happens, whether it is public harassment walking down the street or being molested on the bus. They speak of feeling like bad feminists and civil rights lawyers for not speaking up and confronting their harassers, even though it is natural (and recommended) to be safe and walk to avoid or simply change seats, in order to avoid escalation and altercations. They talk of feeling devalued when they realize their mentors and professors think of them only as sexual beings, as if all of the compliments on their work mean nothing noow. It is depressing to hear such stories. It is depressing because it has happened and is happening to me, and I feel my own story recounted back to me. It is depressing. It fills me with dread and anxiety, and I look at this article I am writing and feel like a bad feminist and dishonest academic. I look in the mirror, and feel terrible, and like throwing up, as if I could purge myself of these feelings and these distortions of my identity.

Is this the fault of the women involved? Is this my fault? Are we asking for it? Did we do anything to provoke such behavior? Are we worthless academics, and just pieces of ass? I am not arguing for sanitizing all social interactions and workplaces. If professional relationships end, then I would agree that as a peer, the former mentee joins the global "dating pool." But it is unfortunate that positing oneself as a peer immediately invites sexualization, as if there were no other relationship possible between former professors/advisors/mentors and students/advisees other than an infantilized one of "avuncular" mentor/"child-like" mentee or one that is sexualized. And that despite repeated rejections of advances, such boundaries are continually transgressed, and it is the transgression that is so prurient. That is to say, I am not saying that "there aren't enough boundaries"--there are plenty--social, legal, moral, and yet they are continually being crossed in unwelcome ways, and that disturbs me. This is not the way of the world. It is not right that this happens to so many women I know, and that so many of them think that this is just the "way things are," and that so many men I know think this too.

The answer, obviously, is no. But it's hard to remember that. It's hard because no one really gets it, and most will tell you that perhaps in some way it is your fault. Even if it is, does that make it right? Not to get into victimology here, but just as walking home in the dark isn't "asking for it" in any sense, being a woman in public or in the professional sphere isn't "asking for it" either.

So all of you, especially men: Next time you're on a bus or subway, take note of the skeezy guys and how they try to rub up against women and molest them. Next time you're out on a public street, count the number of times you hear women being cat-called and harassed. Next time you talke to a woman, ask her if she has ever been sexually harassed in the workplace or any other place. Ask her to define harassment, and then ask her if she's ever been hit on in a creepy, unwelcome way by a student, classmate, co-worker, professor, boss, or mentor, and ask her how she felt when it happened. Ask her how she handled it. The answers may surprise you.

It's more common than you think, and yet very little is done about it. The costs are more than you think as well: imagine walking in zig zag loops to avoid clusters of harassing men. Imagine the anxiety induced by a crowded subway, and imagine how you would feel if someone grabbed you. Imagine the actual material and professional costs associated with giving up mentoring relationships because avoiding is easier than confronting, and both result in the same end of the professional relationship anyway. Because no professional relationship can exist, because the woman is just seen as a piece of ass.

Doesn't this piss you off?